KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Nick Bolton has emerged as a seemingly irreplaceable thumper at the heart of the Kansas City Chiefs’ defense, leading the team in tackles each of his first two seasons in the NFL.
The Chiefs had to replace him Sunday against the Chicago Bears when a sprained ankle suffered at Jacksonville left Bolton, a star second-round pick from Mizzou in the 2021 NFL Draft, inactive.
“With Nick out, we just know we’ve got to pick up and we can’t let off at all,” said linebacker Willie Gay, who was questionable with a bruised thigh but said he was never in jeopardy of missing the game. “No matter who’s out, we’ve just got to keep it rolling, and we definitely did that today.”
Drue Tranquill, who Kansas City signed after playing against him for four seasons with the Los Angeles Chargers, stepped in for Bolton, and the defense didn’t miss a beat.
The Bears managed only 203 total yards and 11 touchdowns, with nearly 40% of that production late in the fourth quarter after the Chiefs had already built a 41-0 lead.
Right in the thick of it, Tranquill posted a team-high eight tackles with a half-sack in helping orchestrate a dominant defensive effort.
“Drue stepped in and did a heckuva job,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “... He’s a smart kid, so I thought he got in there and did a nice job with the calls, lining guys up.”
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme requires a cerebral middle linebacker who can communicate the various adjustments needed on the fly and get the rest of the defense lined up.
The middle, or “Mike,” linebacker wears the communications helmet, symbolized by a green dot on the back, which receives the defensive call from the sideline before relaying it on the field.
“It was huge,” cornerback Trent McDuffie said. “I was really excited that he was able to go out there. Man, this defense is tough. There’s a lot of checks and Spags puts a lot on our Mike ‘backers, but he (Tranquill) just rolled with the punches.”
Kansas City’s defense has played above outside expectations through the first two weeks, but there were some questions entering Sunday facing a highly mobile quarterback — Bears QB Justin Fields finished seventh in the entire NFL with 1,163 yards rushing last season — on a team with its back against the wall and without its on-field general.
“He was able to go out there and run an efficient game, came up with some big tackles and was able to command this defense really well,” McDuffie said. “So, I thought Drue did an amazing job today.”
Next man up seems to be real and not mere lip service for the Chiefs’ linebacking corps.
“There’s no weak links in the linebacker room,” Gay said. “No matter who’s in or who’s out, we keep it rolling — and that’s what happened today.”
That said, Bolton, who finished second in the NFL with 180 tackles last season, will be welcomed back when healthy.
Until then, Tranquill is happy to hold down the fort.
“We just wanted to keep it rolling,” he said. “We’ve had two great games. We’ve got a lot of great players, a lot of speed, a lot of guys that can play some good football. ... I thought our guys played really disciplined football there. (We) had a couple plays there we could clean up in the fourth quarter, but, other than that, it was a special day for the defense.”